Netflix’s original movies have come a long way in a short amount of time. We’re just two and a half years removed from the total waste of Bright, and now with The Old Guard Netflix proves they can pick a decent project to back. More than decent, actually, The Old Guard is the kind of film that does well enough in theaters to become a low-key hit, not unlike the slow burn of John Wick. The Old Guard has a lot in common with John Wick, from a feet-first approach to worldbuilding to brutal action sequences, and it might just be the first superhero franchise to live outside the traditional theatrical environment. Oh yeah, The Old Guard is technically a superhero movie, deriving from Image Comics’ recently popular book of the same name by Greg Rucka, who also scripts the film. But with its focus on interpersonal stakes and ambiguous morality, this is hardly your typical summer popcorn fare.
We are dropped into a world of immortals with virtually no introduction, simply meeting a team of badass mercenaries led by Andy, aka Andromache of Scythia (Theron). She is an unknown number of years old, and her cohort is also all immortals. The opening scene establishes that they will bounce back from devastating bodily trauma, though they feel the pain of every injury and, we later learn, can eventually stop being immortal for reasons no one ever explains. Worldbuilding can go wrong when it gets bogged down in the details, and here Rucka, working off his own original idea, peppers in just enough information to grease the wheels, without ever stopping for an exposition dump on why and how and who and where with the immortals. They’re just there, they’re virtually indestructible, but there IS a limit on their abilities. It’s enough to get on with and provides a sort of elegance to the storytelling.
And we do have an audience surrogate in the form of Nile (KiKi Layne), a young US Marine who is killed in action only to recover without a scratch on her. This, naturally, marks her out from her fellow Marines, and Andy and the immortals swoop in to save her from inevitable capture and torture in the form of medical experiments. The Old Guard is very concerned with what it would really mean to live while everyone else dies, with Nile coming to terms with letting her family go, while the others are haunted by the pain of previous losses. For a group of incredibly powerful beings, the immortals are a rather sorry lot, with the only real happiness belonging to Nicky and Joe, a pair of lovers who defied the politics of the Crusades and their respective churches to come together for centuries of blood-soaked bliss.
Played by the tremendously charismatic pair of Luca Marinelli (absolutely sublime in last year’s Martin Eden) and Marwan Kenzari (Disney’s hot Jafar), Nicky and Joe could fuel a spin-off in this potential franchise. It’s not that we need to revisit the Crusades with them, but we could use a lot more of their brand of ride-or-die love in the superhero genre. There are so few healthy and loving romantic relationships in superhero movies, let alone of a same-sex couple, that it would be a tangible loss to throw away opportunities to continue their story. Also, they are just plain gorgeous to look at together, and director Gina Prince-Bythewood so lovingly frames and shoots them, even in the midst of bloody action scenes, that they look like something out of a Renaissance painting. Nicky and Joe almost steal the show.
The only reason they do not is because the heart of The Old Guard is the teacher-student relationship between Andy and Nile. Andy is bitter and exhausted, ready to tune out a world from which she is almost completely alienated. Nile, meanwhile, is a good soldier who must wrestle not only with her own (first) death, and the prospect of an unnaturally long life, but also how to spend that life and what it means to be a soldier with no decisive war. Andy and her team try to take “good” jobs, but they leave piles of corpses in their wake, and Nile doesn’t want that much killing on her conscience. It’s an effective dynamic, one that challenges the weary expert to reexamine her motives, while also forcing the naïve student to come to terms with ugly reality. Superhero movies rarely wrangle with their own morality (even Captain America: Civil War, the sincerest effort at it to date, takes a weak “both sides” approach), but The Old Guard doesn’t shy away from unflattering portrayals of its hero team.
The Old Guard is a decidedly grown up superhero movie. It’s not just about the high blood quotient on screen, it’s also about showing a team of immortals as burnt-out killers on the brink of losing their humanity. This is not a cute, fun representation of immortality, like Thor, but one that asks how you live without dying, especially if you have no one with whom to share your time. The villains are obsessed with quantity of life, but the film challenges the notion of “a lot” when there is no purpose to it. The Old Guard is a cool action flick, but it’s nice to see a superhero movie actually asking some real questions of its gifted protagonists and offering no easy answers.